COVID-19 and Academic Libraries

The following is a letter from Candise Branum, ACRL-Oregon President

As many of you may already know, the World Health Organization has publicly classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. Across the country, K-12 schools are shuttering, colleges and universities are moving curriculum online, music festivals, conferences, and sporting events are cancelled or are proceeding without fans. When the NBA cancels the rest of the season, you know things are serious. So much has happened in the past few days that I don’t even know how to process it all.

One thing that has come up for me, though, is thinking about the academic library’s role in continuing education throughout a pandemic. As universities cancel in-person classes and move towards providing online education, libraries continue to remain open to provide services to suddenly displaced students. Some academic libraries are business as usual, while others are operating at reduced hours. There are a select few who are closing facilities altogether but are promoting online library services, like MIT. 

I was speaking with another library director at a smaller college recently about the decision to remain open or to close in the event that our respective organizations move curriculum online. We are both adamant about protecting our library staff, and she mentioned allowing her employees to work from home and staffing the library at reduced hours by herself. My first thought was, yes, this is absolutely something that I would do as well. And something that I have done. As a library director, sometimes you have to work an extra long day or otherwise pick up the slack; that is completely understandable. But then I started to question why I tend to not prioritize my own physical and mental health, and why administrations are not prioritizing the safety of library staff when making decisions to close facilities. 

So why do so many colleges come to the conclusion that being on campus and in a classroom is a risk, but justify keeping the library open? It almost feels like the burden has recklessly been displaced onto library staff. Moving curriculum online and leaving libraries to support those changes also makes the assumption that library staff are not high-risk themselves, or that they do not live with immunocompromised or elderly people. And what is the actual goal in keeping the library open? Is it primarily about access to the facilities? Because I think we could all be pretty creative in how we provide access to other library services, including reference, document delivery, and even book delivery. 

Why is it so hard to close a library? There is an assumption that libraries will continue to remain open, and of course we don’t want to disappoint our communities, but we’ve also been programmed to believe that it is our responsibility to lay our bodies on the line in order to remain open. Yes, I absolutely signed on to provide library services and to be a leader in difficult times. I am still here and committed to that. But I also pause to remind myself that Librarianship is a primarily female-identified profession, and that as academic librarians, we are seen as both educators and caretakers, and in the time of a crisis, martyrs. I question the extent to which we are expected to put our bodies on the line during this public health crisis. Public librarians (shout out!) are physically and mentally challenged every day, but I also think: where is the line? When do we value our own safety? I don’t have an answer to this except to say that this is the conflict I’m currently struggling with — valuing the health and safety of our library staff, and balancing that with our commitment to serving our communities through dangerous times. And understanding that there can be an intrinsic conflict in being both a caretaker and in taking care of yourself.

In times of crisis, libraries have the potential to be places of sanctuary. Sometimes a library provides computing services that allow students to continue their education online when they do not have the technology, space, or quiet that is required to do this from home (and this is all assuming that they have a safe home). Sometimes a library’s value can be as simple as providing a safe, warm space for people to rest. But there is no road map for how academic libraries handle a pandemic. Oregon colleges and universities have yet to close down their campuses, but as administrations prepare for what seems to be the inevitable, I encourage everyone working in academic libraries to take a moment to think about your own values and boundaries. Think about how to balance the desire to support our students, but also make the right choice for yourself and your family when it comes to staffing your library during a healthcare crisis.

And continue to take care of yourself and one another.

Candise Branum
ACRL-Oregon President, 2019-2020

1 comment

  1. Pitt libraries are not closed. Pitt is transitioning to online instruction only but the University remains open for business and the libraries are open.
    Kornelia Tancheva, Director of the University Library System

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